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Into the woods

Area parks let kids get a little grubby while they learn
by: ANNI TRACY, Tryon Creek State Park puts guided nature walks, free-form exploring, educational games and day camps within reach of urban dwellers — they don’t even have to leave the city.

Is your child suffering from nature- deficit disorder?

'Last Child in the Woods,' Richard Louv's acclaimed book, out in paperback next week, has parents and nature-lovers talking about the ill effects that can result when children don't connect with the natural world.

The good news is, if you live in or around Portland, help is only a stone's throw away.

The Portland area is full of small pockets of nature, and there's no lack of guides who are ready and eager to show your kids the way into the woods, with the help of abundant easy-to-hike trails, interpretive centers and summer day camps.

- Anne Marie DiStefano

Tryon Creek State Park

Hidden between downtown Portland and Lake Oswego, Tryon Creek State Park is a surprisingly large and leafy oasis. Walking or jogging along Tryon's 14 miles of trails, you feel miles away from highways or houses.

The park was set aside as a reserve by activists 30 years ago and now boasts 667 acres, with trees as old as 100 years.

Bring your sunglasses and rain gear for a springtime walk through lush, green areas, with dense carpets of ferns and mossy fallen logs beneath the young branches of deciduous trees. There's also a big covered deck at the trailhead if you need to wait for a shower to pass.

The interpretive center, staffed by volunteers from the group Friends of Tryon Creek State Park, offers educational games such as 'Create a Healthy Creek,' activity books to take home, and information on the park's many activities for kids.

Summer brings half-day camps for younger explorers, full-day camps, and overnight camps that include field trips to the Columbia River Gorge, Mount Hood and the Oregon Coast.

Where: 11321 S.W. Terwilliger Blvd.

Park hours: 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily

Nature center hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Friday; noon to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Contact: 503-636-4398, www.tryonfriends.org

Tualatin Hills Nature Park

From downtown Portland, it's an easy ride on the westbound MAX train to the Merlo Road/S.W. 158th Avenue Station. From there, take the Oak Trail about three-quarters of a mile to the Tualatin Hills Nature Park's Interpretive Center.

The park is a 222-acre wildlife preserve and a haven of forest land, creeks, marshes and meadows in the heart of Beaverton.

The park's interpretive center includes classrooms, a nature store and an exhibit area. The center offers a variety of kids' programs and activities, and hosts classes from the Beaverton School District during the school year.

'There are a lot of kids who haven't even been in nature before. They get to come out and realize that this is in their neighborhood,' says Elisa Joy Payne, the park's program coordinator. 'There's definitely a lot of them who can't believe that deer live in Beaverton, or that they can get someplace in their city that they can't hear traffic.'

A range of summer day camp programs is available, including some with field trips. Also during the summer, there are free ranger walks on some weekend mornings (see the Web site for details).

The center also hosts birthday parties, geared toward kids from about 4 to 6 years old, that can encompass indoor activities and guided exploration outside, including rainy-day searches for bugs and newts.

Bugs are a big deal at this park, which every summer draws hundreds of attendees to Bugfest (this year, it's Saturday, Aug. 23, and the focus is spiders).

Where: 15655 S.W. Millikan Way, Beaverton

Park hours: Dawn until dusk daily

Interpretive center hours: 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday (closed May 26 and July 4)

Contact: 503-629-6351, www.thprd.org/parks/thnp.cfm

Audubon Society of Portland

As part of its mission to conserve wild areas for bird and wildlife habitat, the Audubon Society reaches out to the decision-makers of tomorrow. Awareness is the first step for creating future environmental stewards, explains Sarah Swanson, camp director for the Audubon Society of Portland.

'A lot of kids don't get that chance to play outside anymore,' she says. 'So the idea is just to get them out there. … Until you know what kind of cool stuff is out there - birds and animals and forest - then you're not going to appreciate it. Once you do, then you'll care about it and you'll want to protect it. '

The society holds a Nature Kids day school on its 143-acre preserve, which adjoins Forest Park and also is open to the public.

The youngest kids, Swanson says, start to feel comfortable in the natural world once you get them out there searching for something - even if it's something they didn't like before - say, salamanders or slugs. Older kids, she says, gain confidence by learning basic survival skills such as how to build a fire or a shelter.

'Hopefully this will have some effect on them years down the road,' she says. 'It's hard for us to measure that, but we're hoping to plant some kind of a seed in kids that later on in life they'll be the kind of people who care about parks and native habitat and birds and all those good things.'

Where: 5151 N.W. Cornell Road

Nature Sanctuary hours: Dawn until dusk daily

Contact: 503-292-6855, www.audubonportland.org